The Hallmark Channel's annual "Countdown to Christmas" is already under way, with this year's new movies debuting on weekend nights at eight or nine p.m.
Now that there are two channels -- the regular Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries -- you can choose what kind of experience you want to have.
The Hallmark Channel has the sentimental, magical, romantic movies where you know within the first fifteen minutes who is going to end up realizing that they love each other more than anything.
Hallmark Movies and Mysteries has the three-kleenex movies where genuinely bad things can and do happen, and while these also have love stories and non-tragic endings, you can shed a lot of tears along the way.
Now, the fact that these movies are so predictable is not a flaw. This isn't HBO -- not that HBO's premier offerings aren't also predictable in their own way. With Hallmark Christmas movies, the audience tunes in precisely because they trust Hallmark to deliver, in a two-hour movie, an ending that can let the viewers trundle off to bed feeling good about the world.
I've heard some people (who are nowhere near as smart or open-minded as they think they are) say that Hallmark movies are for lonely middle-aged women who keep cats.
To which my reply would be: and why shouldn't that audience segment have well-written, well-acted, and well-produced films that meet their needs? And no, it's not just women, and not just people with pets, who watch these channels at Christmastime.
The existence of Hallmark holiday movies doesn't take away a single oppressively cliche-ridden arty film from the "connoisseurs."
In some ways, it's harder to write and direct an entertaining, well-made 88-minute Christmas comedy than an art film in which you get praised for communicating badly with your audience. No praise for lack of clarity in a Hallmark movie! The filmmakers actually have to care about and, yes, respect their audience.
Not all Hallmark Christmas movies are equally successful. Early on in Hallmark's tradition of coming up with dozens of new movies a year for the run-up to Christmas, there were a lot of movies about people suffering from the painful condition of having "lost their Christmas spirit."
Sometimes this was because a beloved dead person was really into Christmas and now the grief takes away all the mourner's enthusiasm for Christmas celebration. Other times, they are simply so busy with their careers that they don't have time for this most sentimental and family-oriented of holidays.
Some of those movies were quite fun, though for me, at least, they became less fun to exactly the degree they departed from anything resembling reality. Stories in which Santa turns out to be not only real, but also relentlessly determined to meddle in people's live, can be fun ... but perhaps the story executives at Hallmark began to weary of those plotlines -- especially when good writers came up with non-magical storylines that fit the parameters of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
For instance, Catch a Christmas Star has two excellent stars. Shannon Elizabeth, whom we first met on screen in American Pie, has matured into an actress with real ability. The surprise in this Hallmark movie is that she is also credible, or at least non-embarrassing, playing a pop singer, "Nikki," with a big career.
Then there's her old boyfriend Chris Mitchell -- her first love in high school -- who disappeared from her life as her music career took off. He married and had a couple of kids (played very well by Julia Lalonde and Kyle Breitcopf), and now his 10-year-old daughter is a completely gonzo fan of Nikki.
When she finds out that her dad actually knew Nikki, she arranges for herself and her brother to sneak off to the big city to attend an autographing session for her new Christmas album. They meet Nikki, and when the singer finds whose kids they are, and come on, you can guess the rest.
OK, this movie could have been awful in so many ways. The songs could have been terrible. But they aren't. Most of them are traditional (no royalties) Christmas songs with very good pop arrangements. The one new song is surprisingly good. They actually took some care with this -- including casting a lead actress who can sing. She's not Streisand, but nobody else is, either. By the end of the movie I was thinking: If they actually went to the trouble to record full versions of all these songs, I'd buy this album.
Another way it could have been terrible if they cast some lame actor as the high school boyfriend, so that we kind of hoped she'd rush back to her career and forget all about him. Instead, they cast Steve Byers, an actor who has been working steadily since his first guest shot on the TV series First Wave back in 2000. He's never had a big starring role, but like all the Hallmark movie actors with any brains, he is using this starring role to show the superb skills he has developed over the years.
As a loving father, as a brother and son in his original family, and finally as a guy who has a good explanation for why he ditched Nikki as her career took off, he is completely believable. The relationships with his family and with Nikki are very well written -- way better, for instance, than Al Pacino's "fatherly" role in Nora Ephron's Heartburn -- so it's no surprise that Byers also did a way better job of acting like a good father than Pacino did.
No, I'm not trying to diss Pacino -- he was way better than, say, Robin Williams as a dad in Mrs. Doubtfire. My point is simply that in Hallmark movies, you sometimes see better writing and better acting than a lot of things that get widely released in the theaters.
So I was happy to see that Steve Byers showed up again in one of this year's new Hallmark Christmas movies: The Christmas Cure. Once again, he's the old boyfriend, and this time the girl who got away and had a big-time career is Vanessa Turner (Brooke Nevin), a doctor working in the ER of a California hospital.
Her dad, played by Patrick Duffy -- who has aged into a very natural actor -- is anxious for her to come home for Christmas, and when that works out, she inevitably bumps into good old Mitch -- Steve Byers, doing his best old-boyfriend performance so far.
It seems that Mitch virtually grew up in the medical clinic operated by Patrick Duffy, because Mitch's single mom worked as the records clerk and receptionist. Now, Mitch has become a general contractor, and he has remodeled homes and offices for practically everybody in their small town.
Are Mitch and Vanessa still in love? Wait, did you miss the part where I said this is a Hallmark Christmas movie? But that doesn't mean it's easy.
And there's a lot of entertainment along the way. Dale Whibley gives a delightful performance as Vanessa's high-school-senior brother, who is trying to work up the courage to talk to a brainy-beautiful girl (the luminous Jocelyn Hudon) who he knows is way out of his league.
But the writers went further. So that we can see how Patrick Duffy's medical clinic has been a blessing to the town, we get to meet various patients -- most prominently an old widow (Pam Hyatt) who makes a fabulous 12-layer German cake every Christmas in honor of her baker husband. It's the kind of obviously sentimental role that can be wrecked by an inept performance, but she turns in a very good one.
The result is that we don't need a magical Santa or an elf to make everything work out. We can understand why this couple haven't been together for the past ten years, and we can understand why it takes 88 minutes for them to get back together. Meanwhile, we fall in love with the town and with rewards that are better than winning prestigious jobs and making really big bucks (Patrick Duffy's clinic did not leave him destitute -- he is a doctor).
One of the things that Hallmark Christmas movies do very well is casting first-rate child actors. It's very rare to see an awful child actor in these movies; on the contrary, some of the child actors are wonderful. Jacob Soley, for instance, who plays young Mitch in a flashback, has only a few moments of screentime, but the audience falls in love with him -- as the audience also loves Steve Byers as grownup Mitch.
In All I Want for Christmas, a movie from 2007 which showed up in the Hallmark Countdown this year, there's an astonishingly natural and intelligent child actor named Jimmy Jax Pinchak. In this movie, everything hinges on this kid being believable, because the plot is built on his video application to a toy company's contest in which kids ask for the thing they really want for Christmas. He asks for a new husband for his widowed mother.
The plot seems built around the exertions of the toy company's owner (Robert Pine), his marketing executive, and his son (Greg Germann), who keep pushing the mom (Gail O'Grady) into falling in love with and marrying a guy of their choosing. The writing is good enough that the guy in question isn't awful; he's actually kind of nice.
But the heart of the movie is the relationship between the son and the next-door neighbor, played by Robert Mailhouse, who has been a father-figure to the boy most of his life. To viewers, it is obvious that this neighbor guy is who the mom should marry, and the boy soon realizes it.
What makes this movie work, in spite of the far-fetched toy-company plot, is the utter reality of the relationship between the characters played by Mailhouse and Pinchak.
Jimmy Jax Pinchak was so good that I looked to see what kinds of movies he's done since this one -- it was impossible that he has not been cast over and over, at least until he got too old!
Well, imagine my shock when I found out that he was the actor who played Peter Wiggin in the purported adaptation of my novel Ender's Game back in 2013. Oh, all right, then, apparently he has worked, and I should have known it! But I was just as shocked to realize that, young as he was in All I Want for Christmas, he also had a speaking part in The Polar Express in 2004.
I don't see any credits more recent than 2013, alas, so maybe he grew out of acting. Or maybe he's just waiting to get the kind of adult role that can use his genuine acting talent. Because Pinchak was not just coasting on cuteness. He could deliver a convincing line of dialogue as well as any adult in the movie.
So far, most of the movies in the Countdown are (slightly) older ones; it's no surprise that Hallmark Channel is holding back most of its big new movies for their Thanksgiving weekend marathon, and then for every weekend in December.
I'm not going to repeat my reviews of movies I reviewed in previous years, but there were plenty that I missed. For instance, Eloise Mumford gets one of those "here's what your life will be if you ditch your true love, get on that plane, and take that great job" stories.
In Just in Time for Christmas, William Shatner plays the Santa-like carriage driver who sends Mumford on her magical adventure, and Christopher Lloyd is wonderful as her grandfather when she comes back home in the midst of her publicity tour for her million-selling self-help book.
With Michael Stahl-David very good as the exuberant coffee-shop owner whose marriage proposal she turned down, the writers did a very good job of giving Mumford believable scenes in which she has to cover for her inability to remember the events of the past few years. The young woman that Stahl-David's character is about to marry isn't awful -- the writers played way more fair with her than Nora Ephron did with the soon-to-be-jilted lovers in, say, Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail.
The flip side of this is Family for Christmas, in which perennial Hallmark favorite Lacey Chabert is sent by an office-party Santa Claus to see what her life would have been if she had married her college sweetheart after all. Writer Bryar Freed give Chabert such good dialogue, with her kids and her close friends -- none of whom she remembers -- that we can believe that she is able to bluff her way through.
The kids are played by wonderful young actresses, especially Milli Wilkinson as Caitlin, a proto-teenager who knows her mother has suddenly turned weird. In fact, without ever sentimentalizing their relationships, we fall in love with her husband (Tyron Leitso) and her daughters, so we definitely want them to get together when she returns to the real world.
It's a nice touch that in most of these movies, the writing does not insist that women should always choose their "young love" over their career dreams. In Just in Time for Christmas and Family for Christmas, the ambitions and aspirations of both female leads are treated with respect, and they don't have to give up everything they've earned and learned in order to find happiness and True Love.
One of this year's new three-kleenex stories on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries is Home for Christmas Day, in which widow Jane McKendrick (Catherine Bell) is trying to shield her daughter Betsy (Matreya Fedor) from the kind of heartbreak she suffered when her soldier husband was killed in action, leaving her to raise Betsy alone.
We know how painfully lonely Jane is because of the way she resists the obvious romantic interest of Jackson Hart (Victor Webster), to whom she turns whenever she needs comfort and counsel, but whose wish for a real relationship she resolutely resists.
Meanwhile, in Jackson's diner, young Betsy happens to meet Tyler Sloan (Anthony Konechny), a young soldier from the nearby military base, and naturally they fall in love. Knowing how her mother feels, Betsy conceals Tyler from her as long as she can. Every scene is well-written and well-acted, and even though there are some events that we know must happen, we can't believe Hallmark would put us through such an emotional wringer.
Yeah, be prepared for that wringer, because writer David Golden doesn't shy away from the tough scenes. And the actors are up to it -- especially Matreya Fedor, who proves that she has graduated from child-acting roles to full-fledged adult ones.
This is one of the best Hallmark Christmas movies ... even though, to be honest, the story could have been told without Christmas in it. But, perhaps because they knew this, the filmmakers made sure to film it during winter in a place that gets a lot of snow, so the wintry and Christmasy background is so completely convincing that we don't bother questioning what this movie has to do with Christmas. (Not an elf or magical Santa is in evidence.)
Then there are the movies I didn't record. I caught just a glimpse of The Christmas Card, another story about a soldier. Sgt. Cody Cullen (John Newton) comes to a small town to find the woman (Alice Evans) who sent him a Christmas card as part of a church project to write to servicemen. This one came at a time when he was filled with grief and despair, and so he comes in search of the stranger who reached out to him in his time of need.
The ending was so good I'm looking forward to recording it and seeing the whole thing.
The two Hallmark channel do more than any other institution to help promote and provide whatever this thing we call "the Christmas Spirit" is. If I've learned anything from the great Christmas movies -- It's a Wonderful Life, One Magic Christmas, Love Actually, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bishop's Wife, The Shop Around the Corner -- it's that if the story doesn't make us experience tragedy or loss, then we won't feel such intense joy along with it.
That's why, for me, there's no reason ever to watch any of the "funny" or "thriller" Christmas movies a second time ... with the exception of Die Hard, but that's because it's a great thriller, not because Christmas is in it.
And that means that no, I have no particular affection for Home Alone, The Santa Clause, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, or A Christmas Story. I know this makes me the ultimate scrooge in the eyes of many. But for me, Christmas has deep roots, and the movies that have become part of my Christmas have to find their way into those roots in my heart.
Now, this is not to say that I don't love some completely frivolous Christmas movies, for no better reason than that I grew up with them. The two Bing Crosby movies in which he sings "White Christmas" -- Holiday Inn (1942, with Fred Astaire) and White Christmas (1954, with Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) -- are deeply sentimental to me only because of memories of watching them on our black-and-white TV while decorating the tree or wrapping presents.
Heck, I still love the 1934 Laurel & Hardy classic March of the Wooden Soldiers, which was inexplicably renamed much later as Babes in Toyland, just so we can get it confused with the 1961 Disney musical Babes in Toyland starring Annette Funicello, Tommy Sands, Ray Bolger, Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk, and a very young Ann Jillian.
(There's also a TV original Babes in Toyland from 1954, with Wally Cox, Dennis Day, and Jack E. Leonard; and a 1997 animated version with the voices of Charles Nelson Reilly, Lacey Chabert, Christopher Plummer, Jim Belushi, and Bronson Pinchot.)
None of these have the element of tragedy; instead, I still love the Laurel & Hardy original because of pure nostalgia, because I watched it with my mom and dad and siblings during the days before Christmas. In other words, they're part of my childhood, and therefore I don't even pretend that any of them are actually good. They're just ... part of Christmas.
I'm far too old now to experience any of the current crop of Hallmark Christmas movies in a way that will lead to nostalgia, mostly because I don't expect to live long enough, or have a working memory long enough, to ever get nostalgic about these films.
Now I'm going to say something that I know some readers are going to recoil from: I watch these Christmas movies from Hallmark because even though a few of them are kind of awful (usually involving Tom Arnold or Steve Gutenberg), most of them are in that sweet range between Good Enough and Very Good.
In other words, they do a fine job of what they're meant to do: Engage the audience's heart with stories tied to the Christmas season. Those who watch movies to be impressed, wowed, or intellectually stimulated are generally wise enough to avoid the Hallmark channels entirely.
But that's is not why I watch movies. Ever. If I want an impressive, arty, intellectually stimulating story, I'll write it myself, thanks. (That was a joke, kids.)
On Spectrum (formerly Time-Warner Cable) the Hallmark Channel is 123 and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is 629.
Maybe it's just because it's getting old (i.e., more than a year since I bought it), my Android tablet has become annoyingly erratic.
It's a Samsung, and it has both a cellphone and a wi-fi connection, but no matter how I change the settings, it absolutely demands that the wi-fi be connected in order to do anything that requires the internet.
This should work fine -- the wi-fi signal in my bedroom, the only place where I use it, is very strong.
So it's especially maddening that the connection with our local network keeps cutting out and then returning -- sometimes in a few seconds, sometimes a few hours.
This means that I sometimes go a couple of days before Fitbit can sync up with my Ionic watch, and some of my other software is unusable way too often.
My first thought was the usual best option: Replace it with the latest model of the same thing.
But then I read some of the many reviews that say the Kindle Fire 10 HD tablet from Amazon is quite possibly the best option on the market. It's also cheaper than a lot of its competitors, so I figured, why not give it a try?
All the rave reviews it gets are completely deserved. It found my wi-fi connection instantly and never drops it. This means that, unlike the fading Android tablet, I can actually stream music and movies to the Fire.
The screen is also bigger, and when I play Ticket to Ride, it doesn't crash.
It comes with Alexa, which I was sold on when visiting with friends and hearing them ask Alexa various questions -- and then tell her to play whatever kind of music they wanted.
Because I've been an Amazon Prime subscriber since it first came into existence, this means that much of the library of music on Amazon is available. I can lie in bed and, without getting up, tell Alexa what I want to hear.
However, Alexa is not smart enough to know about whatever I played using touch commands. That is, if I play a particular album by tapping the screen, then I can't tell Alexa to pause the music, because I just get the answer that she can only perform such operations when there's music playing.
Yeah, that's right, if she isn't playing the music, then she can't hear it. That's a small drawback. Trivial.
Not so trivial is the problem that the Fire 10 HD lives up to the tradition of all of Amazon's Kindle devices: The battery lasts, like, forever.
But to have a battery that doesn't need charging for days, you have to devote a lot of space and weight to the batteries built into the machine.
My habit with my Android tablet has been to use it to read Kindle ebooks while lying on my back in bed. Using the cool swiveling handle that is built into its cover, I can hold it up at a comfortable position for reading.
But the covers I've seen for the Fire 10 HD do not have that grippable, sturdy swiveling handle. Instead, the covers are all designed to be used on a table, so that they prop up the Fire for use on that flat surface.
Nobody in their right mind would call my stomach a "flat surface," and when I do rest the Fire on my stomach in order to read, it's (a) heavy and (b) way too low for me to see it without raising my head uncomfortably high.
If I try to hold it up, my grip is always uncomfortable and tenuous -- and the Fire quickly gets too heavy.
So until I find a sturdy, swiveling handle for the Fire, it's now sitting on a shelf near my bed, poised to hear my commands to Alexa -- usually, right now, to play Christmas or classical music while I lie in bed using the old Android tablet to read ebooks or play games.
But now I don't care if my tablet can sync with my Fitbit Ionic, because the Fire does it instantly and reliably. Nor does it matter that my tablet can't stream anything without intermittent fails, because, you guessed it, I have the Fire right there.
My review of the Fire is this: If you want a relatively inexpensive tablet for use on tables or other flat surfaces, the Kindle Fire 10 HD will give you everything you want, reliably and effectively, for a long time between recharges -- plus, it has Alexa.
But if you want a highly portable, lightweight mini-tablet to hold in your hand without fatigue, the Fire ain't it. Too heavy. Too awkward. (Which is exactly how I've always felt about the original iPad, with its laptop-sized form factor.)
There's a reason why Amazon has become America's department store: They generally deliver quality and convenience -- like the Fire 10 HD.
They're not perfect, however, and their monopolist business practices have the normal deleterious effects. Without much competitive pressure, they've gotten careless.
Recently we've received Amazon packages in which a paperback book was just tossed in among a bunch of other stuff, with the unsurprising result that the book was beaten up in transit, so the cover and many pages are bent or torn.
By contrast, we just opened a couple of boxes from a catalog company called Chinaberry. It's an eclectic kind of store -- lots of toys, but also a bunch of children's books -- but when we examined everything, it all measured up in terms of quality.
Best of all, Chinaberry learned what Amazon has forgotten: You haven't delivered the goods if they aren't adequately protected from damage during shipping. The books we ordered were carefully wrapped in heavy paper, so that there was no damage to the covers or pages.
Of course, nobody's perfect. A couple of felt novelties were just tossed into the box, and so some felt reindeer antlers got folded. Ouch.
But hey, Chinaberry.com is now going to be a regular resource for us at Christmastime. Check it out!